Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

The written word took over the world

Whereas most human beings learn to speak in the first two years of their life, written languages are more of an acquired ability. We learn to speak before we learn to write. It is not uncommon for adults to be illiterate, even in rich countries. In this sense, the written language is a high-level ability. For centuries, only a small elite knew how to write and read. I suspect that it was widespread at first among wealthy merchants. Learning how to read and write a natural language was probably like learning to program software today. Few could do it well. If you were part of the literate elite, you could expect good jobs.

The written language was a powerful technology when it first arose, akin to the computer today. Instead of having to painful remember who bought what and when, you could write it down. You could hand out receipt. You could create money in the form of IOUs. In time, people could use the written language to tell stories, to seduce remote princesses… The possibilities were endless.

What is amazing, to me, is the rise of written language as an essential medium via platforms like Facebook or email. To our ancestors, this would be unbelievable. How can all these people be expected to communicate effectively through writing?

Today, we say that software is eating the world: most jobs and industries are becoming software-related. But it is maybe useful to view this as the continuation of a trend that started when the written word is took over the world.

As software eats up our world, people urge us to prepare. Our kids need to learn how to program. But as someone who officially receives over 100 emails a day… let me add that your kids should first learn to write well.

The written language remains an acquired ability, and mastering it is a matter of constant effort. But, most importantly, it requires a different work ethic.

When I help my sons to study, I expect them to always write down the answer. It is not uncommon for one of my sons to pass a test if I ask him to speak it out, but to fail it when I ask him to write it down. Part of the reason is that, as the person asking the question, you provide many more clues when you speak and listen to someone. “Does it end up a ‘t’? I can’t remember, but dad seems to be waiting for more…” It is simply harder to write down the answer.

We should not underestimate this challenge. Let me contrast these two actions:

  • If I come to meet you in person to communicate a message (or if I call you), I do not have to spend much effort preparing. I can figure out what I need to say as you are waiting. Moreover, I can rely on the recipient to give various non-verbal clues to guide me through the process. And even if I ended up failing to communicate any meaningful information, we can still smile.- If I send you an email, I may have to put my emotions aside and think through my problem. What do I really want to say? What is my context? When I write, I have to make an effort to anticipate the reactions of the recipient without any guinea pig. I also can’t corner him or her: I must get to the point without undue delay. And if my email ends up being gibberish, I probably won’t get a smile back.

Of course, this analysis extends to meetings. People who love meetings are often the very same people who have trouble writing. In a meeting, you can talk for 15 minutes without any message… you can fill the time with empty posturing. In written form, you’d be ridiculed… but, after a long diatribe that nobody could quite follow, you are unlikely to hear anyone point out how empty your words were. Once more: the bar is set higher when you use the written language.

I should stress that effective written communication is not necessarily limited by your mastery of the grammar or your spelling abilities. The main issue is effort. Writing well takes time. It is a habit. When you write… “I can’t explain myself by email, let me call you”… you may be letting us know more about your work ethic than you think… There are good reasons to call people up. For example, if you are the CEO, and you want to stress the importance of a project, you better call up the project manager. It is hard to convey emotions reliably by email. However, if you are the CEO and can’t explain your decisions or state your questions by email, then maybe you are all fluff. Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are famous for some of their emails. Both of them write well and are to the point. Steve Jobs often wrote back to lay users. His emails were often communication masterpieces. Clear, concise, and powerful. Other powerful writers include Linus Torvalds, Tim Berners-Lee, Tim Bray… Not all our leaders can write well. But if the most powerful CEO of his era would take the time to explain himself by email, what does it mean for the rest of us?

Before email, it was enough to be able to read most things, and to write semi-competently when you had to. Today, you shouldn’t hire an engineer unless if he can explain a difficult technical issue in ten lines or less.

A friend of mine once asked whether we could offer a college course on “efficient use of email”. I have no doubt that this would be ridiculed… but it could be the most useful course many students ever take.

I wrote that the written word requires a different work ethic. You can’t figure out what you want to write as you go. We should realize that software programming takes this up to another level. Once you code your ideas in software, you have to know exactly what they are, down the smallest detail. The future belongs to people who can be precise, concise and accurate. It will become harder and harder to get by with fuzzy messages.

Update: Some have raised the counterpoint that video lectures and great talks can be precise, concise and accurate. For example, Steve Jobs produced great presentations that no only presented the facts, but also shared his enthusiasm. However, such presentations are akin to the written word: the author has had to prepare extensively and he must be mindful of the time the recipient is willing to spend. At any time, you can tune out a presentation or just leave. It is also not a natural form of “talk”: giving good presentations is an acquired skill that relies on rigor and hard work. Others have argued that the written word could be just as sloppy at the spoken word, e.g., as in so-called “texting”. This is true, of course… you can use the written word as merely a transcription of your immediate thoughts. Whether it is effective, e.g., in a business context, is another issue.